Monthly Archives: August 2014

Equus – a horse for a course.

Alan struggles to explain. Manchester 1977

Alan struggles to explain. Manchester 1977

My second job as a young professional actor was playing Alan Strang, the boy in Equus by Peter Shaffer. Manchester. At that time it was the part every young actor wanted as the play had just been released to repertory companies, when there was a repertory system in the UK. (the subject of another blogpost to come). Many companies were doing the play, and Daniel Day Lewis was playing it in Bristol when I was doing it in Manchester. Cleverly and more recently, Daniel Radcliffe used the role as a stepping stone away from the Teenage Magician. Alan, the disturbed and insular boy who blinds six horses with a metal spike and is being examined by a psychiatrist as to what might have led him to do this, was an ideal part for me, as I found the pain and isolation of the young man and his secret repressed life very easy to access. [Make of that what you will!]

The staging of the play with its actors on metal hooves and wearing giant wire horse shaped heads was an extraordinary concept forty years prior to the more sophisticated War Horse, and that, along with its dramatic exploration of the story through therapy was extremely unusual and exciting.

Something the play achieved which the film could not, was to make for a perfect balance between the boy’s mythological wonder and the psychiatrist’s necessity to make Alan’s life more mundane and less imaginative. In the play we, the audience, experienced the splendour and power of his secret horse riding through the physical and visual poetry of the final minutes of act one, astride one of the giant ‘horses’ , whereas in the film we saw him riding like the disturbed boy he was, through a rubbish tip. In the film there was not enough polarity of experience between the boy and the psychiatrist (played by Peter Firth and Richard Burton) which for me destroyed the great moral question of how and when to civilise behaviour and yet retain some of the extraordinary passion and wonder the boy seemed to possess.

Some people attacked the play as too simplistic, as we discover that the final trigger to Alan’s act was a culmination of first discovering his reactionary father at a porn film, then being taken back to the revered stables, under the eyes of his godlike steeds, to have sex with an older lonely young woman, and being unable to have sex with her because he could not get an erection. When written baldly like that it does sound a bit unlikely. However, there is something about the underlying power of this play which belies any scepticism one might have. It is for me full with an organic and mythic truth.

This is why I am using the play for exercises in my next Intermediate Chekhov weekend here in Galway from The evening of October 3rd , then two full days over the weekend of October 4th and 5th. You need to have some experience with the Chekhov technique, and our main focus will be working with just two aspects of the work, personal atmosphere and psychological gesture and using them for short scenes on the Sunday. I chose these two aspects, and may add another, because on the bare space the characters inhabit as described in the text, they need to radiate a strong personal atmosphere which is almost for me bigger than the character, or they just disappear and become trivialised. Their personal atmosphere may be in some case how they want to appear, their armour, their persona and so they send that out loud and strong. Equus for me is like a bloody battle between the characters as they struggle to justify themselves in the wake of this grisly story, rather than why a boy does such a thing…. Anyway …

Check out the upcoming courses page for details or just email to register interest and find out how to pay a deposit. It is €100 for the weekend. If you need to know more about my work as teacher and director, it’s all on this blog!

Freedom and Discipline – A visit to Emerson College

Just recently I took a trip to London to visit my publisher, meet my old friends, and visit my friend Sarah Kane, who with Gregors Binch and Geoff Norris, have set up PerformInternational, a new performance training project, which unites the training of Michael Chekhov with Rudolf Steiner. As many readers will know Chekhov was heavily influenced by Steiner’s work, though this influence was diluted, at least publicly, in order to make him more commercial and readily available to a more materialistic public

One of the things I loved about my 36 hour flying visit was the beautiful venue, Emerson College. After a short train journey from London to East Grinstead I was picked up and driven into the countryside. Steeped in its great history of alternative learning and in enormous grounds, some of which were now given over to organic farming, the old White House sits on a slope surrounded by a host of other buildings all of which have their own distinct atmosphere. Many of the buildings house environmental projects, one of them had water purification fountains. There were sculptures at every turn, and I really felt as if I had stepped back in time, and was in a place where art and creativity were truly valued. Sarah took me into a room which was now the centre of the storytelling course, that felt thick and heady with the imagination, with cosy chairs and colourful hangings. It smelt of myth.

The delicious vegetarian food was really wonderful, all made in the kitchens there.

PerformInternational were offering an exploratory week of training in voice and Body. We worked in Eurythmy house, a large warm space. The day was focused and long, and I made my own contribution by leading an hour of centre work and radiating and receiving. A highlight for me was working with some wonderful musical instruments, creating scores and making wonderful sounds together, singing and working with atmosphere, the body and poetry. Something that many trainings ignore is that in order to create you have first to find freedom. Most trainings believe that discipline comes first, but i am not so sure this is true, having seen many instances where the discipline of drama school often alienates the person from their creative nature. Of course you need to create a disciplined  environment where freedom can be allowed to exist, just as you do for a child. Ultimately you have to have discipline in this freedom, but I do not believe it is true that discipline necessarily creates freedom, any more than doing what you want alone creates discipline and focus. Creativity has got to be a balance. Now we can be free, now we can be focused and controlled and now we can do both.

Chekhov trainng in Dartington Hall

Chekhov trainng in Dartington Hall 1936

Later on in the day there was some quite rigorous work on poetry which was the opposite of the day’s work. But this is what I mean, the balance of the polarity of discipline and freedom makes for true release.

At the end of the long day, as  I stepped on the train to head back to London I reflected that where i had been  both physically and spiritually had the feel of those wonderful photos from the thirties of Chekhov training actors at Dartington Hall.

‘The fault, dear Brutus…’ Caesar at the Bankside Globe

shakespeareI have just returned from seeing Julius Caesar at the fabulous Globe on the South Bank. I cannot believe I have never been there before but I left London before it was built. It was wonderful to see the audience watching the play in something like the kind of environment in which it would have been performed, and reminded me how important it is for young people to acknowledge where the plays were performed in order to understand and fully appreciate them. However I have to say that I was disappointed at the level of some of the actors, and more particularly, the direction.

Despite having some technically strong actors ( and some appallingly weak ones) , the production failed, for me at least. there was no real attempt to tell the story scene by scene, and speed and pace are a cheap substitute for real tension. Of course these are connected, and pace is vital, but tense moments of conflict and debate and some real character conflicts and transformations were what was required. The actors seemed to be encouraged by director Dominic Dromgoole to play the whole thing at lightning speed with no moments for pause, as if they were afraid that if they stopped speaking the whole edifice would crumble. When Brutus took a big pause during the oration it was quite clear that a few more pauses would have been completely acceptable and the actors and the story would not have vanished in a puff of smoke. I felt they needed to trust the play and the audience more .

A few sections sparkled, especially the group work which was strong and powerful around two rather too weak orations. Interestingly though, I felt that when the crowd actors came onto the stage to hear the will and see Caesar’s body more closely, they instantly forgot that the audience was part of them, and became rather less powerful . This made me feel that the actors and director had no real understanding of what that relationship might have been.

Another moment that worked for me was the moment after the murder when the conspirators collected themselves and spoke of how many times Caesar’s murder would be enacted. This had an amazing resonance in this space which actually moved me to tears for a moment. This had less to do with the acting than with the fact it was acted out in this theatre which gave its audience a strong role as co- conspirators in the tragedy. Our presence reminded us , both that Caesar’s murðer was being acted out as a play, but also that, as dictator after dictator is assassinated in the real world over the centuries, that this kind of assassination is a very hit and miss affair when it comes to creating a more just society. It felt like we were witnesses to a tragedy humanity enacts over and over again. Sublime.

Overall though ,the actors played fast and flatly with no real struggle or argument . Brutus , Tom McKay, played all on one level with no sense of the struggle of the role, despite giving ‘ it must be by his ðeath’ directly to The audience but without the real questioning of them and using the audience as an acting partner. This opportunity to explore the character’s dilemma was simply thrown away. The journey of Brutus it seems to me shows the audience how a good man can justify an assassination and put his name to something he finds questionable. If the actor does not do that, and there are many ways to do it, he has not fulfilled the role. Cassius, played by Anthony Howell, ranged around the stage with some focus to the text, but for me not enough passion. He I suspect would have made a much better Brutus. Caesar, George Irving, was not played as an egotist but as a victim just waiting to be murdered, with no sense of power or danger. The actor was so all over the place I wondered whether he was not actually feeling unwell. So the many springs of the play on which it depends, were not really in evidence.

It appeared that the actors worked on an intellectual level only, and seemed to ignore the imagery as an encumbrance rather than something that is giving real tangible multi layered psychology and atmosphere to the characters and themes. The characters talk of ‘the rheumy and unpurged air,’ when there was no feel or evidence this fetid air is filling the stage. And this dank atmosphere of sickness is a tangible and real thing which is either something created by the conspirators actions or by the tyranny of Caesar, and by the actual damp night.

When the language and acting have to do everything, the one thing the actors have to bring on to the stage is atmosphere, both realistic , a storm, a garden, a public place ( easy that) and palpable emotional ones….. Secrecy, suspicion, chaos, repression. It is as important as the scene itself, as Michael Chekhov wrote ‘ the general atmosphere is the oxygen of the performance .’ With no lighting, no sound other than music, no scenery, then bringing on this atmosphere is crucial. And ironically, it is not hard to do. It is not hard for actors to bring on an atmosphere of disease and dampness and secrecy if some attention has been put on this in the rehearsal.

It was to me somewhat ironic that a production that strived for ‘authenticity’ of costume and setting appeared to make no real attempt to connect with the language on anything other than an intellectual level, when one imagines it would have been experienced more deeply and emotionally as well.

Now I am Alone: Filming Soliloquies.

Muireann Ni Raghallaigh in Galway City

Muireann Ni Raghallaigh in Galway City

Over the past few days, a group and I have been filming a series of Shakespearean speeches and finding Galway landmarks in which to set them. A way to connect the material to now and where we are in a concrete fashion. It has been a fascinating process thus far. From a Chekhov point of view, one of the iðeas of the project was to work with atmosphere and gesture, and really test what an atmosphere gave the speech in opposition to the intention of the gesture, and how those two opposing energies informed the character of the speech. When I watched a rough cut of my own piece ‘ the barge she sat in’ from Antony and Cleopatra,   the camera panned out to Galway Bay and to swimmers at the diving boards and I actually gasped it was so beautiful.

I really was keen to explore with the group the character of the speech rather than playing the character and this was an interesting distinction. In the end of course, aspects of the character -after all it is a character who speaks them- came strongly, even though we had not talked about character and it made you realise how much is actually intrinsically rooted in the language. Enobarbus, for instance is telling a story. He is remembering. The very act of remembering an extraordinary memory sitting beside soothing water and being the age I am, brings a relationship to the material that feels wholesome and true. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a young woman spoke a speech of King Lear under a tunnel near a night club, which offers us a lone girl in a tunnel far away from the bustle of the streets and the people going about their business.

Another challenge for us was whether the speeches were internalised or spoken to camera. Some speeches were not soliloquies and those speeches were given to the camera, to an actual person or to a building. People watching them need to decide whether this works for them. However the actual soliloquies when characters address the audience, were more challenging. When I was young , filmed Shakespearean soliloquies were often spoken on voiceover, with the actor looking intensely at the camera and doing little or nothing, acting as if they were thinking the lines. I always thought this woefully inadequate because the speech is poetic and structured. Thoughts are not like that.  A soliloquy is a ‘thinks’ but it is a dramatic ‘thinks’ a movement of energy, feelings and ideas going backwards and forwards . The voiceover soliloquy was akin to saying ‘ the audience is not really here’ and kept the energy locked and static. Even great images could not rescue it. Fortunately this fad passed through and is no more..

Soliloquies and the audience

We have to remember the fluid relationship of the audience to the actors and the play in the Elizabethan theatre, where the audience was considered part of the action throughout. Though not always acknowledged directly there is no real pretence that they are not there. When a character discusses his or her dilemma in soliloquy however, the audience must always be fully acknowledged in order for there to be a real dynamic. The soliloquy needs to be active and happening now. A style of playing I was unfortunate enough to see recently in the RNT’s King Lear took another common tack where several actors appeared to deliver their soliloquies like reports, as things they had already understood and accepted. This makes the soliloquies almost a waste of time. It makes me feel ,’ well just finish speaking and we can get on with the story.’

Soliloquies generally have a rhetorical question within them, one which we are asking the audience a question. We are asking them ‘What shall I do about this situation I am in?’ ‘What do you think about it?’ Of course within this extroverted approach there are also moments or periods of introspection where the character asks themselves the question, and that introspection and ‘moving backwards or inwards’ is what keeps us firmly tied to the play. It is almost as if the actor playing a soliloquy is like a connecting rod between the audience and the situation in the play. She creates and builds that bridge for us.

Directions and the Soliloquy.

Let’s explore this through Chekhov’s idea of directions, and imagine you are teaching, directing, helping facilitating or doing it yourself … Let’s physicalise this moving towards the audience and moving inside (or backwards) into our own torment with a speech. Let’s take two lines of Isabella’s speech :To whom shall I complain? If I told this who would believe me?’ from 2:4 of Measure for Measure.

Let’s look at the exercise and just work with walking backwards and forwards first. Get an impulse to move forwards. So what that means is you do not just walk forwards and hope for the best! If you are working with a group who are not connected to their body, it is useful first to ask them to look ahead and feel they want to move forward, that they have an urge. You will see them sway a bit . Ask them where they feel it, usually in the centre of the chest and legs. THAT is an impulse.

Ask them to walk forward on an impulse. They will feel strong, extrovert, maybe angry… Ask them to name the sensation/ feeling aloud. Then ask them to stop and get an impulse to move backwards.. Feelings then are usually tied in with fear, uncertainty, giddiness….ask them to name it as they go backwards.

Then ask them to move forward on an impulse and ask them to say ‘To whom shall I complain? If I told this who would believe me?’ The movement charges them to move and speak positively. Ask them to get an impulse to move back and use the same lines. they will feel uncertain, introspective, alone. Remember if they do not work connectedly from an impulse this will not work.

Now it becomes more interesting. Ask them to go forward on To whom shall I complain and then backwards on If I told this who would believe me. Tell them they have to take their time for the change over, but they will start to notice the shift in energy. then ask them to reverse the process to see the effect. Backwards for line 1. forwards for line 2. You can work through a whole speech like this . It is very simple provided you have some connection to your body. It is a great way to keep the energy flowing and keep the soliloquy alive and moving. For those not familiar with the Chekhov process, you mine your body for the sensations and then you stop the movement though you are still accessing the feelings, sensations and movements of energy inside.